THE RIGHT TO LIFE MEANS ” A LIFE FOR LIFE “


REBBAPRAGADA SUBBARAO (1893-1948), LAWYER, POET, SPORTSMAN, DISTINGUISHED CITIZEN OF RAJAHMUNDRY

This entry is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Shri.Rebbapragada Subbarao, who had served the British Crown as a Public Prosecutor at East Godavari District Sessions Court in Rajahmundry for two terms from 1940. He had never hesitated in seeking the capital punishment when he had prosecuted criminals for the offense of murder. I was not fortunate enough to witness his performance as a Public Prosecutor but my grandmother had shared information about his stellar qualities and his great reputation. While I grew up in Rajahmundry, during a school field trip, I had visited the Central Jail in Rajahmundry where the death sentence is carried out by hanging. My impression from that trip was that the death sentence is appropriate and is not cruel. This entry is an effort to understand my grandfather’s support for capital punishment.

THE RIGHT TO LIFE :

Human beings everywhere demand the realization of diverse values to ensure their individual and collective well-being. A fundamental value that is universally claimed by all people is that of the Right to Life. Thomas Jefferson had asserted that his countrymen were a “free people claiming their rights as derived from the laws of nature and not as the gift of their Chief Magistrate.” In the Declaration of Independence proclaimed on July 4, 1776, he had eloquently said that ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by the Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The basic principle of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen(1789) was that “all men are born free and equal in rights,” which were specified as the rights of Liberty, Private Property, the INVIOLABILITY of the person, and resistance to oppression. It specifically states that Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus the exercise of the natural rights of every human has no bounds other than those that ensure to the other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.

THE REASON FOR PUNISHMENT :

A Right which is not protected is not a Right and a Law without penalty attached is not a Law. If the Constitution declares a ‘Right to Life’ and if Moses proclaims the divine law that commands that “You shall not murder“(The Book of Exodus 20:13, and The Book of Deuteronomy 5:17), if there is no penalty attached, these words would be vain words.

A penalty is imposed as a consequence to an act of wrongdoing. Punishment is generally conceived as the infliction of pain. Why men should be punished is one of the most controversial questions in the field of moral and political thought, and in psychology and theology as well. There are three major types of wrongdoing in relation to which men discuss the nature and the need of punishment, its justice or its expediency. Punishment is traditionally considered in relation to, evil or wicked actions, violations of law, and sin. Murder is an act which simultaneously violates the moral, the civil and the divine law.

THE PURPOSE OF PUNISHMENT :

The question about the purpose of punishment critically tests the meaning of anyone’s theory of Law and Justice. The purpose of punishment will affect the penalties to be imposed for wrongdoing. Some people think that punishment need only be inherently just and others think that punishment cannot be justified without reference to its utility or expediency. The purpose of punishment could be described under three different categories :

1. Punishment should be justified only by its consequences.

2. Punishment should be a combination of awarding a just penalty and securing good effects.

3. Punishment should be a just retaliation exclusively.

THE UTILITARIAN THEORY OF PUNISHMENT :

This view is based upon the idea that punishment should not be equal to revenge or an act of hostility. A punishment is an evil inflicted by public authority on those who have transgressed the law so that the will of men may be better disposed to obedience. The chief aim of punishment is securing the reformation and the deterrence of criminals and to maintain public peace. The Court does not exist for punishment only but also for the salvation of the criminal. The spirit and meaning of punishment is seen as the salvation and the reformation of the wrongdoer.

According to Socrates, “to suffer punishment is another name for being justly corrected when you do wrong,” and he “who is punished and suffers retribution, suffers justly.” He believed that justice is restored to the soul of the wrongdoer. “The proper office of punishment is two-fold; he who is rightly punished ought either to become better and profit by it or he ought to be made an example to his fellows, that they may see what he suffers, and fear and become better.”

Plato had implied that virtue could be taught. “He who desires to inflict rational punishment does not retaliate for a past wrong which cannot be undone.” He punishes for the sake of prevention. Plato thought that the death penalty should be imposed only on the incurable who cannot profit from an example to other men not to offend.

Hobbes places the reason for punishment in the future rather than in the past in its utility to procure certain effects rather than retaliation. “Men look not at the greatness of the evil past, but the greatness of the good to follow.” We are forbidden to inflict punishment with any other design than for the correction of the offender, or the direction of others.

Locke derives from natural law the right to punish those who transgress that law and to restrain and prevent the like offence.

Rousseau lays great emphasis on the reformation of the criminal. “There is not a single ill-doer who could not be turned to some good. The State has no right to put to death, even for the sake of making an example, anyone whom it can leave alive without danger.”

THE RETRIBUTIVE PURPOSE OF PUNISHMENT :

Kant and Hegel viewed that retribution or retaliation is the only basis for punishment. Punishment should be purely retributive and it need not serve some end beyond itself and need not produce some desired consequence in the future. We should punish only because we have, under the moral law, a duty to do so. The purpose of punishment is to uphold the moral law.

The effect of the punishment upon the wrongdoer or upon others whose conduct may be affected by punishments meted out, must not be taken into account at all. Punishment of the transgressor may heal the feelings of those he has injured and it may even satisfy a desire for revenge, but those factors should have no motivating force. Nothing should be sought except the preservation of the balance sheet of justice. Every wrong is duly requited by a proportionate measure of punishment. It should not consider any person except the wrongdoer himself.

According to Kant, “Judicial punishment can never be administered merely as a
means of promoting another good, either with regard to the Criminal himself, or to Civil Society, but must in all cases be imposed only because the individual on whom it is inflicted has committed a Crime…….The Penal Law is a Categorical Imperative.”Punishment cannot be justified except as doing the work of Justice.

THE RIGHT OF RETALIATION( ius talionis ) ;

Kant says that ” It is just the Principle of Equality by which the pointer Scale of Justice is made to incline no more to one side than the other; It may be rendered by saying that the undeserved evil which anyone commits on another, is to be regarded as perpetrated on himself…….This is the Right of Retaliation; and properly understood it is the only principle which can definitely assign both the quality and the quantity of a just penalty. All other standards are wavering and uncertain; and on account of other considerations involved in them, they contain no principle conformable to the sentence of pure and strict Justice.” Retributive Punishment or retaliation seems to express the principle of justice or fairness in exchange.

A LIFE FOR LIFE ( lex talionis ) :

A Life for Life is the symbolic statement in the Greek as well as the Hebrew tradition. “Who so’er shall take the sword, shall perish by the sword.” Retribution is not revenge. It is the righting of wrong. It is the very act of crime itself which vindicates itself.

The gravity of the offense is the only determinant of the severity of the punishment. The punishment should fit the crime, not the nature of the criminal as someone capable of being benefitted by punishment. Kant and Hegel do not think that the justification of the death penalty depends upon the curability or incurability of the offender. The taking of the criminal’s life need not be motivated by a desire to protect society from his future depredations. It is sufficient that he has taken a life and it should be repaid by a proportionate requital.

“Whoever sheds the blood of man,

by man shall his blood be shed:

for in the image of God

has God made man. ” (The Book of Genesis, chapter 9, verse 6)

The reason murderers deserved the death penalty was the supreme value of human life. To destroy human life is to attack the image of God, and therefore God demands an accounting.

Murder could be described as a sin, as a crime and as a vice. The Criminal gives his consent for Capital Punishment by his very act.

Dr. R. Rudra Narasimham, B.Sc., M.B.B.S.,

Kurnool Medical College, Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh, India,

M.B.B.S.  Class  of  April,  1970.

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2 thoughts on “THE RIGHT TO LIFE MEANS ” A LIFE FOR LIFE “

  1. Despite the Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Gregg v. Georgia, the ACLU continues to oppose capital punishment on moral and practical, as well as on constitutional, grounds:

    * Capital punishment is cruel and unusual. It is a relic of the earliest days of penology, when slavery, branding, and other corporal punishments were commonplace. Like those other barbaric practices, executions have no place in a civilized society.

    * Opposition to the death penalty does not arise from misplaced sympathy for convicted murderers. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. For this very reason, murder is abhorrent, and any policy of state-authorized killings is immoral.

    * Capital punishment denies due process of law. Its imposition is arbitrary and irrevocable. It forever deprives an individual of benefits of new evidence or new law that might warrant the reversal of a conviction or the setting aside of a death sentence.

    * The death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. It is applied randomly at best and discriminatorily at worst. It is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, on offenders who are people of color, and on those who are themselves poor and uneducated.

    * The defects in death-penalty laws, conceded by the Supreme Court in the early 1970s, have not been appreciably altered by the shift from unfettered discretion to “guided discretion.” These changes in death sentencing have proved to be largely cosmetic. They merely mask the impermissible arbitrariness of a process that results in an execution.

    * Executions give society the unmistakable message that human life no longer deserves respect when it is useful to take it and that homicide is legitimate when deemed justified by pragmatic concerns.

    * Reliance on the death penalty obscures the true causes of crime and distracts attention from the social measures that effectively contribute to its control. Politicians who preach the desirability of executions as a weapon of crime control deceive the public and mask their own failure to support anti-crime measures that will really work.

    * Capital punishment wastes resources. It squanders the time and energy of courts, prosecuting attorneys, defense counsel, juries, and courtroom and correctional personnel. It unduly burdens the system of criminal justice, and it is therefore counterproductive as an instrument for society’s control of violent crime. It epitomizes the tragic inefficacy and brutality of the resort to violence rather than reason for the solution of difficult social problems.

    * A decent and humane society does not deliberately kill human beings. An execution is a dramatic, public spectacle of official, violent homicide that teaches the permissibility of killing people to solve social problems — the worst possible example to s et for society. In this century, governments have too often attempted to justify their lethal fury by the benefits such killing would bring to the rest Or society. The bloodshed is real and deeply destructive of the common decency of the community; the benefits are illusory.

    Two conclusions buttress our entire case: Capital punishment does not deter crime, and the death penalty is uncivilized in theory and unfair and inequitable in practice.
    I support the American civil liberties union’s above position;If life is sacred,by this very argument civilized society has no right to extinguish it;while I have great respect for your grand-father,the very position he occupied debarred him from a stand other than advocating death penalty.RKRAO

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  2. Apart from the Right to Life, individuals also have a Right to defend their lives. Many Americans believe in defending their lives and in acts of self-defense they have killed intruders and others who pose a threat or danger to their life. Self-Defense is protected under law and no charges will be filed against such individuals who take appropriate action to protect their person or property. Death Penalty for murder is a fair exchange and the quality and the quantity of punishment should be strictly assessed according to the nature of the crime.

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